Commemoration of the victims of the Paris terrorist attack Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

France’s Model of Resilience to Terror

In France this year, the second anniversary of the November 2015 Paris attacks was a subdued affair, and not just out of respect for those still living with the trauma. France, unlike others in the West, has managed to avoid panic and social divisiveness, even as it has taken far-reaching steps to defend itself against the threat of terrorism.

PARIS – In a recent tweetstorm, US President Donald Trump shared anti-Muslim smears from the extreme-right hate group Britain First, thus reminding us of the deep divisions and fears that terrorism has injected into Western democracies.

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But not everyone responds to terrorist attacks with the atavism of Trump or Britain First. Take France, where on November 13, 2015, Islamic State (ISIS) militants carried out terror attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris. Although 130 people were murdered – more than in any other episode of violence against civilians in France since World War II – France’s commemoration of the second anniversary was extremely subdued.

French authorities, it seems, wanted to avoid reawakening the painful trauma of the event. That trauma is a very real fact of life for the families who lost a loved one, and are permanently devastated, and for the survivors, whose experience has received little attention.

Much of the news coverage accompanying this anniversary showed that for most victims, even those who were not physically harmed, relearning “the next life” is an everyday ordeal. Since the attacks, their relationship with their surroundings has been upset. Sleep disorders, hallucinations, and depressive syndromes are common. Entire lives have been transformed.

In a November survey published in Le Monde, many victims reported an inability to return to work. And with each new attack, in France or elsewhere, the trauma is reawakened. “Life goes on,” writes one survivor. “But what life?”

On the other hand, French society has proved resilient. After the Paris attacks, the French quickly showed that they would not give up their way of life, nor would they give in to the temptation of civil war. There have been no significant outbursts against the country’s Muslim population.

The state of emergency that former President François Hollande declared immediately after the attacks allowed French authorities to ensure public order, by detaining suspects, conducting home searches, and closing certain places of worship. Human-rights groups criticized some of these measures as violations of civil liberties; but, for the most part, they were applied smoothly.

On November 1, 2017, many of the same state-of-emergency measures, with some adjustments, were codified in law. Despite some expected protests, the new anti-terrorism legislation enjoys wide support among the French, who seem willing to accept certain limitations to personal freedoms in the name of collective security.

Another consequence of the attacks is that international cooperation among security services has strengthened, new technologies have been adopted, and video surveillance has been implemented more widely. Earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron established a specialized counter-terror task force at the Élysée Palace. And, over time, armed soldiers – some of whom have been targets of new attacks – have become a familiar presence on French streets.

Still, a majority of French citizens remain deeply concerned about the threat of terrorism not just from abroad, but from people living in France, often with French citizenship. And similar fears about homegrown extremism can be observed in many other European countries.

In recent years, some of those drawn to Islamist-inspired extremism have carried out attacks with rudimentary instruments, from cars and delivery trucks to kitchen knives. Although violent extremists are an ultra-minority in the Muslim population, their actions have fueled a growing distrust in French society.

Worse still, the successful military campaign against ISIS raises new fears about violent extremists returning from Syria. Already, more than 250 people, including nearly 60 children, have returned to France. More often than not, they are picked up by law enforcement and brought to justice. Yet dealing with returning women and children has become another controversy in itself. And, in addition to the known militants, law-enforcement agencies must monitor thousands of other suspects.

This state of affairs inevitably affects French attitudes toward receiving migrants and refugees, most of whom come from predominantly Muslim countries. It also has a profound impact on the unspoken but constant debate in France about the place of Muslims in French society. While visible expressions of Islam have long been a source of controversy in France – owing to the country’s political and colonial history, conception of national identity, and cultural and legal secularism – similar debates are also playing out in Germany, the Netherlands, and other European countries.

In the two years since the ISIS attacks in Paris, France has readied itself to face the terrorist threat. But the political consensus about how to tackle terrorism, which prevailed after the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher kosher supermarket, has eroded. Some now want to dismiss terrorism as a feature of everyday life, as if extremist violence posed a danger similar to traffic accidents, alcohol, or disease.

These arguments will likely fall flat in France. Even if the threat of terrorism will always exist, resilience must not become resignation. If there is another serious attack, the French will undoubtedly hold their leaders accountable for failing to protect them. And if elected officials have failed to take necessary precautions or demonstrated a sense of resignation, voters will let them know at the ballot box. For proof, look no further than the success of right-wing parties in the last German and Austrian elections.

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